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Rural Youth Homelessness

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Spring 2022   


Rural Youth Homelessness

Some estimates show that youth homelessness is as prevalent — at the same rate although fewer in absolute numbers — in rural communities (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau) as it is in nonrural communities, but the experience of homelessness in rural areas is different. Homelessness in rural areas tends to be less visible than in nonrural areas, with youth in rural areas being half as likely as those in nonrural areas to stay in a shelter or transitional housing and more likely to be couch surfing, staying with others, or sleeping in cars or outside. Because of this relative lack of visibility, youth experiencing homelessness in rural areas may be undercounted. Most youth experiencing homelessness in rural areas are White, but rural African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian youth experience homelessness at disproportionate rates.1

Rural communities may offer fewer opportunities for young people to earn an income to pay for housing than do urban areas. In addition, rural economies might be heavily tied to relatively few industries or employers, meaning that an economic downturn in one sector can have widespread impacts. Substance abuse, particularly opioid abuse, in rural areas also contributes to eroding financial security and resources, leading to homelessness.2

Services in rural areas, if available at all, tend to be few and far between because of "limited service infrastructure, greater remoteness, widely dispersed populations, and the unique economic, political, and social realities of rural communities."3 Youth in rural areas tend to be more disconnected from education and employment than are youth experiencing homelessness in nonrural areas.4 The lack of services in many rural areas extends to housing resources such as permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing, and emergency shelters. Lack of services can cause outmigration, but perhaps less than researchers previously thought, because some people adapt to the lack of formal services and rely on other supports.5 Transportation and technology barriers keep youth from accessing the supports they need, and they are more likely to rely on informal supports through their social networks.6

HUD's Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program requires that some amount of grants go to rural communities that can support dispersed drop-in centers, roving outreach, service navigators, and cross-agency partnerships (including schools). Youth-serving organizations with a broad focus often end up being the only place of service for youth experiencing homelessness.7 Brott et al. suggested that training for counselors and social workers "be intentionally disseminated within rural communities, thereby providing rural practitioners with a professional network (often available to urban practitioners) to access information, support, best-practices, and resources."8

Taking an intersectional approach to rural youth homelessness, specific subpopulations will have differing experiences and need differing supports. American Indian and Alaska Native youth are twice as likely as other youth to experience homelessness, and although most American Indian and Alaska Native youth experiencing homelessness are not in rural counties, those who are face challenges unique to rural areas.9 Rural youth participating in focus groups reported experiencing racism when interacting with law enforcement, education, and child welfare systems, and LGBTQ+ youth struggled to find welcoming and affirming service providers.10 Culturally responsive policies and practices are needed to meet the needs of American Indian and Alaska Native youth, youth of color, and LGBTQ+ youth.11

  1. Matthew Morton, Amy Dworsky, Gina Miranda Samuels, and Sonali Patel. 2018. "Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in Rural America," Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, 1; 7; 8.
  2. Ibid., 9.
  3. Morton et al., 3.
  4. Ibid.; Erin D. Carreon, Jonathan Brodie, and Matthew H. Morton. 2020. "Challenges & Opportunities in Addressing Rural Youth Homelessness: Stakeholder Focus Group Findings," Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, vi.
  5. Andrew Sullivan and Kotomi Yokokura. 2022. "Exploring Unsheltered Homelessness, Migration, and Shelter Access in Kentucky," Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research 24:1.
  6. Carreon et al.
  7. Morton et al., 8; 12.
  8. Holly Brott, Mariah Kornbluh, Gary Incaudo, Lindsay Banks, and Jessica Reece. 2019. "Placing a Spotlight on Rural Homelessness: Identifying the Barriers and Facilitators to Successfully Supporting Homeless Families within Rural Communities," Journal of Poverty 23:3, 196–7.
  9. Morton et al., 13–4.
  10. Carreon et al., vii.
  11. Morton et al., 13–4.


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The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.